“In all directions stretched the Great Australia Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man… in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes… the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak… and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from average nerves.”
This is what Patrick White wrote in his essay “The Prodigal Son” an essay which, like the protagonist of its title, was about White’s homecoming to Australia after years away in Europe. So why did he decide to stay in Australia if he was so disturbed by all that he saw? Do his stories and novels give a clue? I think they do. He wanted to reinvent Australia, deepen its concerns with matters that were not materialistic. In his own words “I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and incidentally, my own life since my return” (“The Prodigal Son”).
So how does this fit with the stories, extracts from novels, essays that we have been exploring this week?
Clearly “Down at the Dump” is an opportunity for White to celebrate the most ordinary, the outcast, in the form of Daise (Mrs Hogben’s sister). The relationship that is described between Meg and her aunt Daise is full of the “mystery and poetry” that White speaks of. The same might be said about the interaction between Meg and Lummy. And these moments of “mystery and poetry” (that might be as much about flowers and gardens as they are about trucks driving through the night!) stand out as a kind of critique of the “material ugliness” that seems to describe the life of Mrs Hogben, her husband and all the counsellors that belong to that group. Patrick White seems to enjoy satirising those parts of Australian society that have no soul. And he is looking to celebrate soul wherever he can find it.
I think “Miss Slattery and her Demon Lover” is a story that deeply questions a kind of soulless fun. But I am not sure who is the main target of White’s criticism here? Is it Miss Slattery herself or is it Tibby Szabo. The story is a kind of grotesque image of partying in Australia.
Clearly the section from the end of Voss is a glimpse into the heart and mind of those who have been touched by Voss’s questing spirit. Both Laura Trevelyan and Judd carry with them a sense of something beyond the ordinary, the mundane. They seem to be invested with the “mystery and poetry” that White was searching for. It is probably true to say that White, in his selection of subjects for his novels was led to chose those rather eccentric, outcast figures (like Voss) who were treated with suspicion by Australian society, but who actually experienced the world as something extraordinary.
1/Chose any one of the Patrick White texts mentioned above and say how you think it illustrates what White was saying in his essay “The Prodigal Son”.
2/Write a letter to Patrick White telling him what you think of any one of the texts you have read this week.
3/Write a letter to Miss Slattery telling her what you think about the decision she made to leave Szabo.
4/Write a letter to Meg in “Down at the Dump” telling her what you think about her relationship with Lummy.
5/Create a topic of your own that links in to the readings this week and that includes some reference to your own personal experience.